I broke out laughing in the middle of my local gamestore. I was standing in line and they were playing the usual mélange of marketing bullshots on the screen behind the counter, and it had rolled around to the newest The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim DLC,”Hearthfire”. When the young lady behind the counter asked me what was so funny, I told her, "We've been playing it that way for years."
My younger son is the household aficionado of all things Elder Scrolls. The expansive world gave him a perfect stomping ground, and stomp he did, all up and down Morrowind and Vvardenfell. Now he's ridding Skyrim’s frozen peaks of dragon-kind. He’s not done with the main quest yet, but we’ve already had some memorably hilarious encumbrance problems. He accidentally quick-looted a secret chest he found and loaded himself down with 700 pounds of random stuff. He wouldn’t let it go, either. It took him several minutes and quite a bit of blue language to stagger down to the blacksmith (using Whirlwind Spirit over and over) so he could sell the heavy stuff. The guard kept harping on him about Shouting in city limits.
After that, getting the ability to build a house and own it without depopulating a small town first was right up our alley. We hung a SOLD sign on the expansion and started the download.
Back when he was playing Morrowind, by the end of the main quest my son had a metric butt-tonne of stuff. He's a completionist, and keeps everything that comes his way. Armor, weapons, potions, clothes, jewels, magic items - you name it. One chest got so full it imploded the contents into what they called an overflow loot bag, removing them from the game. Once he'd figured out what had happened and finished using strong language, he spent hours spreading things around and arranging them. His sisters referred to his house in Balmora as the "Sergeant Major's Dream House" or the "Barbie Dream Armory."
I found this highly ironic. If I would have let him, at that age he would have happily burrowed into a Teen-creep that would have made any Zerg feel right at home, consisting of laundry in states from "worn once" to "calculates it's own THACO," skateboard parts, unidentifiable "projects," and paper regurgitated from his backpack with half-completed homework on one side and over-wrought fantasy weapons and graffiti-like doodles scrawled on the other. Cleaning the boys' room involved two squads of Firebats, and they better have a good following wind. But when it came to the game, he showed a finicky neat-streak worthy of Martha Stewart.
We've had "Hearthfire" for several days now. On first blush it's kind of cool, in a nerfed The Sims sort of way. But as you go deeper, the limitations and problems really start to show through. I was hoping for mercantile possibilities along the lines of Fable or even Assassin's Creed. But this bug-ridden mess isn't even close to what used to be possible between the lines in earlier versions. After getting to a certain point, we broke out my original Xbox and my copy of The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind, just to compare and contrast.
Becoming a Member of the Landed Gentry
In Morrowind, there is no official way to legitimately get a house, but effectively getting one was fairly simple. My son would tour a city, weighing the advantages and disadvantages of each house and looking through them carefully. It was disturbingly like going to a real estate open house in real life. Then he would choose a house, systematically go kill anyone who lived there, and then kill anyone who decided they cared to come and investigate. Once anyone who could have noticed or reported any crimes like sleeping in their bed or taking stuff out of the chests was dead, the house was effectively his. Since you weren’t expecting any bonus from “ownership,” then that was good enough – you could move in and start arranging the furniture. It was certainly better than trying to find a permanent corpse to hide all your extra stuff in.
In Skyrim, that option has been removed but not in the way you might think. You can go kill anything that moves if you want, but even if you wiped the whole map clean it wouldn't matter. When you kill someone, ownership of their furniture and other items doesn't transfer. The house still thinks it's theirs, the bed still thinks it's their bed, and if you chose to sleep in it (if it even lets you) you don't get the benefits of sleeping in a bed you own. And the local guard takes this whole thing a lot more seriously than they did back in Balmora. Even if you manage to avoid a murder charge, you can get pegged as a trespasser, earning the appropriate bounty.
”Hearthfire” doesn't re-instate that whole might-makes-right scheme, or even put in something as logical as being able to legitimately transfer ownership. It skirts the whole process entirely. You can't buy an established property, and you can't just go in, pick a spot and start raising walls. If you want that, you better stick with Minecraft. There are three places you can buy a specific plot of land, and they are tied to three specific quests in the main game. The quests are a ways into the game, so if you're just starting out I'd probably hold off on the investment.
The code has a fairly long list of known issues. We ran into the one where the various Jarls and stewards don't have the proper dialog so you can't purchase the land. My son didn't end up with any choice at all because the dialogue options to buy the property from Sorli the Builder in Morthal or Jarl Skald the Elder in Dawnstar wouldn't show when he talked to them. We double-checked and yes, he had completed the proper quests to make the options available. All he could do was go back and forth between all three of them until finally he got a proper word in edgewise with Nenya and he got the option to buy a specific spot above the lake between Falkreath and Riverwood where he could build Lakeview Manor.
That whole mess made me grumble a bit. If they're going to make you go through all of this, at least they could have let you name the house you're building. I could have done a heck of a lot better than “Lakeview”. And only being able to go to that specific spot was a harsh limitation. There's a much nicer view of the lake a bit higher up the hill I would preferred to build on, with the added benefit that you're not sitting in the front pew at some weird mage's secret arcane altar.
Paging Frank Lloyd Wright...
Yeah, they don't mention that guy in the brochure. Once you get to your newly purchased property, the first order of business should probably be to get rid of the creepy squatter.
That done, dust your hands off and look around. You will find a drafting table, a carpentry table, an anvil, and some natural resources like wood, stone, clay, and a small amount of iron. Use the drafting table to lay out the building plans. You don't get to draw out the rooms yourself - it's a prefab sort of concept. It starts you off with a small house, and then you can add towers and halls to amplify your design into a more expansive dwelling.
The game starts construction from the ground up, building the foundation and then working up as you acquire the necessary resources. You can go get them yourself, buy them, or hire a steward and have them go get what you need. As you build the house, each room gets it's own workbench so you can craft things for that specific room.
There are some seriously wonky crafting behavior bugs. You can craft things and have it not apply even though it consumes the resources. My son built the same high-boy for the master bedroom three times before it actually showed up in the room. Your steward and other staff members are less than trustworthy. Things appear and disappear.
Once the structure is complete, you can either have your hired steward fill the rooms with furniture as he deems fit, or go into each room and craft the various items and place them yourself. Then you are free to fill your new chests and festoon your newly built walls with all the stuff that's been encumbering you.
Well ... sort of.
A Nord's Better Homes & Gardens
In Morrowind, my son would spend all the time he was allowed during his turns after school arranging his hundreds of items until he had it all laid out just so. He found all sorts of tricks. He figured out how to make things float by stacking them and then removing what was underneath, and that heralded a fashion for floating skulls with candles on top, or swords and candles painstakingly arranged into pseudo-chandeliers. One Saturday he spent hours arranging a rack of scrolls until the sparkles that puffed out when you rolled the cursor over them came up in a rainbow.
In Skyrim, we couldn't make any of those placement tricks work. You can't stack things to lift them and then abuse the telekinesis spell to pull or push them into place. You can't just put things anywhere you want, either. Each room has a specific purpose, and there are strict rules about what can be put in it and where they can be placed. If you want to place weapons/armor, it has to go on the mannequins placed in the armory room, so that sword-chandelier in the dining hall isn't an option.
On top of the crafting and dialog problems, we ran into a bug that wasn't in the problem list I found online. Remember that altar to an unknown god nearby I mentioned? After dealing with the unsavory mage that runs it, we ended up with a random dead body labeled "worshiper" in the middle of the front yard. She was killed by mudcrabs on her way to wherever several game-days ago, but for some reason her body keeps going away (as expected) and then reappearing in nothing but her undershift (unexpected and gruesome). It's kind of disconcerting to come around the corner of the house and see her lying there again.
The pitter-patter of little feet...
Now that you're a person of property, it's time to think about a family. Once the house is complete, you will get a letter in-game that will ask you if you want to move your spouse in (if you have one). If you followed a couple rules in layout and furnishings, you will also receive a letter giving you the option to adopt orphaned children, and bring home pets for your children to raise.
My son has a spouse, but she's making him money hand over fist in her shop in Solitude so he's decided she's going to stay there until he's done expanding the house. After that, he says we'll see about the kids. My vote is for Hroar, or that one cheeky little girl whose name I can't remember.
Contrary to some internet grumbling, there are more benefits to a home, spouse, and children than bragging-rights. Sleeping in a bed you own gets you a 10% increase in skill increases. Sleeping in the same bed as your spouse gives a 15% bonus to skill increases. If you sleep in the same house as your children, you get a bonus that makes healing spells and potions more effective. The problem is none of that works if you're a werewolf. Think carefully about where you are in the The Companions questline or the “Dawnguard” DLC before deciding to invest in this.
I can sort of understand why Bethesda would want to limit the sort of game-bending maneuvers that happened in Morrowind. But the more I think about this, the less happy I am about “Hearthfire.” There are plenty of games that have figured out an intelligent system for ownership transfer, and considering how much buying and selling goes on here I would consider it a necessary part of a well thought-out system. I still can't believe they shipped something we are expected to pay real world money for in this state. And even if they didn't want to build something in, true emergent gameplay is intrinsically better than being locked in a hackneyed, bug-ridden box.
That said, if you do persevere the end product does have its good points. While he was working on it, my son called me out of my office to show me the view off his newly completed back deck. We watched the northern lights ripple across the sky in great glowing sheets, and listened to the lonely howls of the wolves echo along the silver peaks of Pinewatch. It was a beautiful night.